An Exec With Insider Information on Toys

MARY RODAS is not your typical corporate executive. She has never had a course in accounting, bookkeeping, business administration, or economics; her best friends are teenagers; she likes to watch "The Simpsons" on TV; and she rarely worries about competitors' products.

Ms. Rodas - who is vice president of marketing for Catco Inc., a toy company - is only 16 years old! Rodas, who reportedly owns a 5-percent share in Catco and earns a six-figure salary, may be one of the world's youngest corporate officials.

"I take our new products, take a hard look at them, try to make them as simple and usable as possible, and make sure that people, and mainly kids, will want to buy them," Rodas says. Many products, she says, are first tested when she shows them to friends at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where she attends classes along with other junior achievers such as Macaulay Culkin, the pint-sized star of "Home Alone."

Catco is a $70 million company in an industry dominated by corporate giants such as Hasbro, Mattel, Tyco, and Fisher Price. Catco creates, and then licenses, its products to other companies. One of its best known items is the Balzac Balloon Ball, which has rung up sales of more than 70 million balls since 1990.

Rodas works roughly 15 hours a week, arriving at her 42nd Street offices in a chauffeured limousine. At work, she looks for items that can appeal to children.

Rodas landed in the world of toys by way of a neighbor back when she was a youngster of age 4. Her family lived in an apartment house in New Jersey. One of the tenants was Don Spector, who just happens to be the chairman of Catco. Ms. Rodas loved to bounce ideas off Mr. Spector - enough so that she eventually landed herself a job in marketing. Rodas - and Catco - are currently seeking to develop products based on the Balzac Balloon Ball, such as tote bags and Cabbage Patch doll pillows.

Active in a number of civic associations - she is the national student chairperson of a March of Dimes reading program, for example - she frequently gives talks to youth groups.

Rodas says that in too many cases the "personal touch" is being lost in product development. The key to identifying good products, she maintains, is not just market research - although she finds that useful - but getting items out to be examined by "real people," including family and friends. Then, she says, companies must listen hard to what they are really being told.

Rodas says that while she recognizes her contribution as a toy company executive, she is careful to draw the line between work and home. At home, she is "just one of the family." When her parents tell her to clean up her room, she's quick to do so. Does she plan to pursue a career in business? Not necessarily, she says. She loves politics and may eventually seek work in government service. But most of all, she says, she wants to work hard at identifying the best possible children's toys, while salting he r earnings away for college.

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